So I finally bit the bullet and dove into J.K. Rowling's culturally phenomenal Harry Potter series and I have to say I came away impressed.
I'm not goiSo I finally bit the bullet and dove into J.K. Rowling's culturally phenomenal Harry Potter series and I have to say I came away impressed.
I'm not going to talk about the plot because, well, if you don't have some inkling of that then what can I tell you other than to poke your head out from under the rock every once in a while. So let me just say that what we have here is an exemplary specimen of characterization, world-building, and plotting.
Rowling has got a knack for detail. And not just the ones on the page, but the ones that aren't. She's got a talent for giving the reader just enough to know what's going, but not so much that the narrative gets stuck in a quagmire of description. For example:
"'Get the mail, Dudley,' said Uncle Vernon from behind his paper. 'Make Harry get it.' 'Get the mail, Harry.' 'Make Dudley get it.' 'Poke him with your smelting stick, Dudley.' Harry dodged the smelting stick and went to get the mail.
It's as clean a passage you're likely to find, with just enough there and no more. The exchange is easy enough to track w/out dialog tags, the lack of which makes the passage an eminently quicker read. Further, note how she skips the action of Dudley poking Harry and gets right to Harry's REACTION.
Even our first glimpse of Hogwarts is a simple and general presentation: "Perched atop a high mountain on the other side, its windows sparkling in the starry sky, was a vast castle with many turrets and towers."
This economy has two effects, both of which are critical for a successful YA book. First, it makes for a quick, easy read. The second is that it leaves a lot of room for the reader to insert themselves, to imagine the Hogwarts of THEIR fantasies.
That Rowling is able to paint so well with such broad strokes is a testament to both her intuitive understanding of her readers and her trust in them. She seems to have an innate sense of where the line between threadbare vagueness and indulgent description lays and treads it like a wirewalker.
I'm also impressed with how seamlessly she's able to integrate various Western mythologies into one tapestry, pulling tropes effortlessly into the story. Greek, medieval European, Nordic, Pagan, Christian.
But what I'm most impressed with is how solid the personalities of her three central protagonists are. How deeply she must have thought about them, how their personalities both conflict and harmonize with one another. Hermione, who wears achievment like a security blanket, the voice of reason. The way Harry can show Ron how to appreciate what's under his nose. Harry, the rash hero who relates to the outsider and the underdog because he'd been one all his life. And all of them with backstories that succinctly explain their motivations and insecurities. If you think this is easy, try it sometime.
Yes, the book has it's flaws. Rowling does tend to wrap things up a bit too snappily, breezily on occasion. And while, like all great children's literature (from fairie tales to Roald Dahl), Rowling touches on very dark subject matter (death, loss, the nature of evil), I'm never fully convinced that our heroes are in true danger. Though I'll admit it's hard for me to discern if that's only because I know there are 6 more books to come....more
So let's get this out of the way: intellectually Wallace trounces Klosterman and Gladwell and still has more than enough left over to bounce David Bro So let's get this out of the way: intellectually Wallace trounces Klosterman and Gladwell and still has more than enough left over to bounce David Brooks or any other pop-essayist du jour.
This collection is actually better, more substantial, than the essays in "A Supposedly Fun Thing..." It's nothing I can exactly single out, except that this group of essays came across as more polished, professional, but no less amusing and illuminating. In the course of reading these, I've had the pleasure of pondering what it is I get wrong about Kafka and Dostoevsky, the plight of the (post)modern politician, the rise of conservative radio, and why grammar matters (and I mean REALLY MATTERS).
Wallace's real talent is in explicating a point, then noting some of the inconsistencies, ironies, and contradictions inherent in that point, and finally articulating why those ironies and contradictions exist and why they matter or don't matter. Remember Shrek? Ogres are like onions because they have layers? Only Wallace's ogre is our current reality and it's one tough onion!
That said, there is one clunker in the bunch. The 9/11 essay 'The View From Mrs. Thompson's', which feels contrived, manipulative, and falls well short of what I would guess Wallace intended. Granted, this is a tough subject to approach for any writer and direct emotional appeal has never been Wallace's strength, so it should come as no surprise to us that it falls flat. What would have been a lovely essay, perhaps, would be Wallace's explication of the difficulties of writing about 9/11....more